Hiking in Switzerland will reward you with breathtaking views of the soaring Alps, verdant valleys, and glacial lakes. Thanks to conservation policies, your trek across the countryside will also give you the opportunity to spot the Alpine country’s unique and fascinating wildlife.
Like most countries in Europe, the wildlife population in Switzerland began to dwindle between the 17th and 19th centuries. The intrusion of civilization, hunting, and loss of habitat forced the decline of animal populations to well below historical levels. Animals such as wolves and bears were even declared extinct for over a century.
Today, the wildlife population in Switzerland has rebounded. Some species reentered the country from Italy and others were reintroduced by conservationists. Their efforts allow the people of Switzerland and its visitors to get a glimpse of the following animals. Some can be spotted all year while others are only out in the warmer months.
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A remarkable creature with a wingspan of over 2 meters, the Golden Eagle is called the “King of the Air” as it dominates the skies over the Alps. The huge birds are extremely territorial and feed on marmots in winter and summer and ungulate carcasses in winter.
Golden Eagles were once very common in all of Central Europe. They were hunted to a near extension during the 19th and 20th centuries but managed to survive in small numbers. The government intervened and saved the rare birds from total extinction. The population has now recovered and the Swiss Ornithological Society reports that the country has about 300 pairs of golden eagles.
You can spot the golden eagle in the wild by recognizing its wide wing span and dark brown color with a sheen of gold on the back of the head and neck. The younger birds have patches of white on the wings and at the base of the tail. You’ll also find six pairs of them living in the national parks of Switzerland.
The mountain hare is a species of hare unlike the ones commonly found. It’s more of an alpine animal with characteristics adapted to mountainous and polar habitats such as a stocky build, small ears, and broad hind legs. Their forearms and smaller and close together. Its grey fur turns white in winter to help camouflage it from predators.
Tourism and the construction of ski resorts have pushed the mountain hare into habitats that they aren’t native to such as the plains and forests. They’re rarely seen in the Alps in winter since their white coats blend in with the snow.
On winter hikes in the Swiss national parks, you may detect the tracks of the mountain hare.
One of the rarest raptors in Central Europe, the bearded vulture can be recognized by its wide wingspan (around 3 meters), white or reddish-yellow plumage on the breast and head, and greyish-black wings and tail. As adults, they have bristles at the base of the beak that resembles a beard.
The huge birds are exclusive to the high mountainous areas of Switzerland and nest on lofty rock ledges. It’s called a Lämmergeier colloquially which translates to “lamb vulture.” With a reputation as a ferocious killer of livestock and even small children, the birds were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. In the latter part of the 20th century, conservationists reintroduced them to the Swiss National Park where you may spot them soaring overhead, especially during the breeding season.
Since the wolf and lynx had almost completely disappeared, the fox is now the largest predator found in the Swiss National Park. They have adapted well and are commonly found in the region. They feed on marmots, small rodents, ungulate carcasses, and worms.
Foxes live in family groups and dwell in earthen dens, often using the dens of other animals where they may exist for generations. Females and males and their older young take care of the pups until the first fall of the year after their birth, and sometimes even longer.
Foxes are nocturnal animals, but it’s possible to see them early in the morning while the parents watch their pups play before tucking them in.
An endangered species in Switzerland, the brown bear is now making a comeback—an amazing feat since it was totally extinct for close to a century after the last one was shot and killed in 1904. According to the conservation organization KORA, discussions began almost immediately on ways to bring brown bears back.
Soon after, conservationists launched a program to reintroduce the brown bear to Switzerland, but their efforts were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until early 2017 when the canton of Bern, which uses the brown bear as a symbol, was thrilled to report a wild bear roaming through the countryside. Efforts to reintroduce them into Italy’s Adamello-Brenta Nature Park at the beginning of the millennium paid off and one of the bears migrated to Switzerland.
Switzerland’s largest hoofed animal, the red deer is another animal driven to extinction in the 19th century because of overhunting. In turn, their extinction of migrating predators. After hunting the red deer was outlawed by the government, they began migrating to Switzerland from Austria where there were no natural predators.
Today, nearly 35,000 red deer roam the Swiss Alps and the national parks. You’ll recognize them by their reddish coats, impressive antlers, and distinctive mating calls.
Sure-footed and an extremely agile climber, the alpine ibex is an unusual-looking animal with one-meter-long curving scimitar-like horns on both sides of the head. The horns typically grow in length a few centimeters every year. Although heavy—as much as 90 kilograms—they are graceful and have a great sense of balance.
These beautiful creatures completely disappeared from the wild almost 200 years ago. In the early 20th century, three ibex were reintroduced to Switzerland after being stolen from Italy. Today, with around 40,000 of them, the ibex is ubiquitous in the mountains and plains of Switzerland.
A good place to spot ibex is in Switzerland’s Upper Val de Bagnes Nature Reserve. Look for them in wild and rocky areas where they like to stay away from predators.
The Chamois is a graceful, horned animal with hoofs that developed a gripping ability to help them scamper over steep cliffs from rock to rock. They are excellent climbers but very skittish so it’s difficult for even expert climbers and hikers to spot them. Adding to that is the sad fact that their numbers are declining through a combination of overhunting, disease, and the disturbance of their natural habitat by climbers and skiers. They’re also being forced to higher altitudes due to climate change.
Throughout the year, female chamois live with their young in a herd while the male tends to live in solitary.
The largest species of the Sciuridae (squirrel family), the Marmot is found in the high Swiss Alps at 762 to 3048 meters. They have a distinct rodent-like look with large front teeth and a thick fur coat. Excellent diggers, they live in burrows deep underground to stay away from danger.
Marmots are family-oriented animals with male and female parents caring for several offspring. They recognized each other through scent glands in the cheeks, and social contact is important to them.
It’s easy to spot the frolicking marmots, and they can often be seen scurrying around the mountain slopes. Since they hibernate in winter, they’re more active in the warmer months. Their body functions drastically slow down during hibernation.
Along with the ibex, the marmot has become a part of the Swiss culture, and bronze statues of frolicking marmots along with a life-sized bronze ibex are the focal points of the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt.
Dangerous Animals in Switzerland
The majority of the animals in Switzerland are not very dangerous. For example, the Ibex, chamois, eagle, vulture, marmot and deer are hardly going to eat you alive.
However, in more recent years, some more dangerous animals have been making a comeback. Animals such as the brown bear and wolf can now be found in the alps and can be considered dangerous. Especially the brown bear, which can be unpredictable when surprised or cornered.
There are also wild boar in some forests and farming areas in Switzerland, although the numbers are not huge. They are mainly found in the Jura, Valais and Ticino and are mostly seen at night.
Another dangerous animal in Switzerland is the European Viper. I have only seen one in all my years in Switzerland, and that was high in the Alps basking in the sun near St Moritz.
The numbers of these more dangerous animals are small, so don’t be afraid to head out into the alps for a hike!
Wildlife in Switzerland – FAQ
Are there wolves in the Swiss Alps?
Yes. According to the group Wolf Switzerland, over 250 packs live in Europe’s Alpine region. Wolf cubs have been seen in eastern Switzerland. The wolf is a protected species under current law, and can only be slaughtered after killing a certain amount of livestock.
Are there snakes in Switzerland?
Yes, the asp viper and the common adder can be found in Switzerland. Both are venomous snakes. The nonvenomous Aesculapian snake also resides in Switzerland.
What is the national animal in Switzerland?
Currently, Switzerland has no national animal. However, several have been used as symbols over the years including the cow, marmot, ibex, blackbird, and St. Bernard.
What is the main animal in Switzerland?
The main animal you will see when you are in Switzerland is the humble cow. Switzerland has around 1.4 million cows, so you will see them almost everywhere you go in the Swiss Alps and beyond.
Are tourists permitted to hunt birds and wild animals in the Swiss Alps?
No, tourists aren’t allowed to hunt birds and wild animals.
When is the best time to see wild animals in Switzerland?
The best time to see wild animals in Switzerland is in the drier months between May and September when the snow has melted in the lower regions.